“Love does not obey our expectations; it obeys our intentions.” ~Lloyd Strom
When I started dating, I did a terrible job of it.
I fell in love at the turn of a unique smile and fell out of it with the first sign of a stubborn bad habit. Despite that, I was a serial monogamist. I didn’t know how to develop the mental fortitude one needed to end things when they were ready to be ended, so I let them crawl on.
Teenage emotions are hard. Adult ones are hard, too.
Three years, four years, three and a half years—I spent a full decade of my life, most of my twenties, in frustrating relationships that had started out as the loves of my life and turned into apathetic slogs of sharing rent and little else.
I thought it meant I was stable. I thought not giving up said I could handle the difficulties of real life, marriage, and everything that came with it.
The truth was I didn’t like to give up, so I tried to make each relationship perfect.
In doing so, I made myself worse.
Boyfriends and I would always fight: Why wouldn’t they help with dinner? Why wouldn’t they ever get off the computer? Why wouldn’t they try to get a better job?
Sometimes, my complaints were legitimate, and they should have addressed them. But I didn’t do a good job of communicating those things even when they were.
The more boyfriends failed to live up to my expectations, the more frustrated, angry, and hurt I’d get. Instead of realizing that we just weren’t right for one another, I drove myself down with constant, anxious questions: Why doesn’t he care enough about me to even eat dinner with me?
With each relationship, my self-esteem dropped proportionately. By the end of the last one, before my now-fiancé and I started dating, I’d started taking anxiety medication, gained weight, and developed a deep nervousness in social situations from lack of being in them.
I’d changed from someone who was happy with herself to someone who accepted whatever was on offer. I lost both my self-respect and my ability to confidently love another person in the process.
I had never wanted my life to be like that. I wanted synergy; I wanted to be one-half of a power couple. Sadly, it took me many years, and many stagnant relationships, to do something about it.
The Problem with My Serial Monogamy
Toward the end of my last failed relationship, I realized that all of these relationships followed the same structure: I was madly in love, it faded, we argued all the time, I cried a lot, they ignored me a lot, we inevitably said something we regretted, it ended much too late.
And I was tired of it. I hated feeling like we’d both come out worse from a relationship than better. Relationships are supposed to be synergistic; they’re meant to take two people and create something stronger than each person was individually.
If you’re going to be in one, it should be something that makes you greater.
That’s what I wanted: something proactive, intensive—something we both learned from, even if it didn’t last. I wanted to grow with my partner, whether it be growing old together or just growing stronger before parting.
So my most recent ex (the only one I’m still friends with) and I ended our relationship the best way we knew how, and I set off on a mission. For the next nine months of my life, I was on a quest to figure out how I could have that synergistic, intentional love.
I researched the best way I knew how: I Googled “How to have a good relationship.”
(You can laugh.)
The Internet has a lot of crazy ideas on how to answer that question. Of all the crap I sifted through, three suggestions have held. They’ve shown me how to love with intention—how to build a sound foundation so the relationship doesn’t crumble at the first fight.
Relationship Mission Statements
I’m a Ravenclaw-Capricorn-ENFP, so I love writing things out. Despite also having a business degree, it never occurred to me that mission statements could be for more than businesses and non-profits. Guess what: You can write one for a relationship, too.
And unlike businesses, the value of a relationship mission statement isn’t in having something nice to add to your FAQ; it’s in the writing process itself.
When you write a relationship mission statement, you’re forced to think about what you want to gain from the relationship and what you’re willing to put in. When two people do them together, they can be powerful.
My fiancé and I did these at the beginning of our relationship. The conversation we had afterward where we both talked about our statements together was invaluable because, before there was ever any awkwardness and before there were any fights or hurt feelings, we both knew what we wanted and where we wanted to go.
On a personal level, it showed me my own direction. I needed to know that so I could be intentional in my relationship.
How Do You Write a Relationship Mission Statement?
Well, I believe they shouldn’t be too rigidly defined. They should be natural and truthful, and the structure they take on should vary with your own values.
You should include key things: what you will do, what you won’t do, things you might need help with, and what you want the relationship to be. Beyond that, put in whatever feels right.
Here are some examples of how I answered those questions in my own Relationship Mission Statement for Nathan:
What will you do in your relationship?
I will be available to you.
I will respect you, empathize with you, and care for you.
What bad habits do you acknowledge that you may need to be called out on?
I will apologize when I’m wrong, although sometimes you may have to drag it out of me, and sometimes it may take me a week before I come to it on my own.
I will undoubtedly get moody every now and then, but I will try not to take it out on you. If I do, I will not get moodier when you call me out (because you’d better, although you also better be nice to me when I’ve had a bad day and feel like being whiny and eating macaroni and cheese with cut-up hotdogs for dinner). I will be nice to you and make you mac & cheese & hotdogs when you’re feeling whiny, too. I will call you on your stuff when it’s gone on long enough.
What do you promise not to do in your relationship?
I will not be petty. I will not be spiteful. I will never speak to you with contempt, dismiss your ideas or opinions, or give you the silent treatment when I’m mad at you.
What do you expect from your relationship?
I will help you grow, and watch you grow through your own efforts. I will stand next to you when you need me there, and stand back when you need to do it yourself. I will be my own person and allow you to be yours.
And I sum it all up with what matters most:
I will not give up when things get difficult, but I will let you go if it ever comes to be what you need to be happy. I will help you find what makes you happy, and help you achieve it. I will do everything with intention.
I promise you, so long as I’m with you, we will be greater together than the sum of us apart.
Every week, we have Monday Night Talks.
In the beginning, these involved both of us being totally honest and sharing the things we felt good about that week and the things that upset us, along with a rating of how we currently felt about our relationship (1-10). Now, we skip the rating because we’re consistently in the 8-10 range, but it was a great metric for us at the beginning.
Why? Because choosing a number is easy starting point for explaining “Why.”
It’s easy to assume everything’s great because you think it’s great, but when you’re hit with an unexpected “I give us a 5 this week,” you’re forced to remember the other person’s feelings.
Monday Night Talks is our favorite tool. It has saved us from falling into that trap of getting angry, not saying anything, and then blowing up about it months later.
These chats need to be a set date, every week—not a “whenever” chat.
If you don’t set the date and stick to it every week, then you won’t get comfortable being so open with one another. Then, when you have a major grievance to air, you’ll be more likely to sit on it or get passive-aggressive about it.
Developing strong communication habits early is key. Not only does it help your partner, but it also helps you. Constant, honest communication builds trust and reduces the urge to be defensive. If your relationship’s already in progress, then it’s not too late to start, but the earlier, the better.
It makes your relationship stronger when you’re both able to confidently give and receive feedback. Without it, confidence is hard to come by. Be sure to give feedback with intention; don’t be passive aggressive, don’t be nasty.
Beware the Four Horsemen
Dr. John Gottman found that there were four habits in couples that predicted divorce: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. He called these the Four Horsemen.
This is when you make it personal. If you have a grievance, make it known directly. Instead of “You never listen to me,” try “This is important to me, and it upsets me when it looks like you’re not listening. Can you set your phone aside for a few minutes while we talk?”
(I promise, talking this way gets easier and less awkward.)
This was the hardest for my fiancé and me. It’s not easy to admit you’re wrong. Learning not to get defensive when the other person brought up a legitimate concern (not criticism) was so beneficial.
We are rarely 100% innocent in fights. Take a deep breath and listen to the other person. When you’re busy trying to defend yourself, you can’t listen. If you can’t listen, you can’t solve the problem.
This often shows up in relationships that have had a history of criticism and defensiveness. Mocking, sarcasm, rolling your eyes, and scoffing doesn’t make you the better person. They make you someone who wants to destroy your own relationship. Because that’s what contempt will do.
I promise you: Rolling your eyes will not make your partner suddenly see that you’re right.
You may find yourself tempted to give in to the silent treatment. Do yourself a favor and don’t. Be honest: Does it really make you happier to stonewall your partner? Does it show that you value the other person? Or does it just drag the fight out longer?
Stonewalling can also include picking up your cell phone to text while the other person is talking, walking out of the room, and saying things like “Forget it.”
I believe knowing and avoiding these four habits can save many relationships. It has saved mine. Being conscious of all of them has forced me to pause when I get angry or annoyed. I ask myself if what I’m tempted to say is intentional or lashing out. If it doesn’t benefit our relationship, I don’t say it. This has to go both ways, so get your partner on board with communication early and often.
You Get What You Create, Not What You Expect
My relationship isn’t your relationship, but I’ve found so much positivity in these few proactive changes, and I hope even one of them can help you. So many other couples suffer from the Four Horsemen, but it is possible not to fall into these relationship traps.
You just need to be intentional and respectful to yourself and the other person. Create the relationship you want with your partner with intention. Be mindful and choose a mindful partner. It’s okay if you both have to learn as you go along. It’s okay if you stumble; acknowledge it, correct it, and move on. Don’t hold grudges.
Improving my skill with relationships has helped me in other areas, too.
My anxiety has plummeted. I’m no longer constantly stressed. I’ve found time again for things that I once loved and let fall to the side. I’ve accomplished exponentially more in my personal life since adding these changes to my relationships (the Four Horsemen are also applicable to friends and family) than I did in the entire decade I trudged through those previous relationships.
When you’re not fighting through a toxic relationship (romantic or otherwise), you have the time and energy to grow. You can have passions. You can create legacies.
Don’t forget that you’re one-half of every relationship you’re in. Don’t forget the other person is the other half. It takes both of you to make the whole. Create the whole with intention.